Monday, January 9, 2012

Chemical Security vs Community Right-to-Know

As if the EPA hasn’t created enough controversy under the Obama Administration, it is going to re-ignite a philosophical debate that was closed off under the Bush Administration after the 9-11 attacks. That debate centers around the right of a community to know what hazardous chemicals are being stored, produced or used within facilities in and around the community versus the potential consequences of terrorists using that same information to select an ‘appropriate’ target for releasing chemical warfare upon those communities.

RMP Database

Larry Stanton, the Director of the Office of Emergency Management at the EPA, has been sending emails to various organizations (see for example announcing that the EPA is planning on reversing its 2001 decision to remove the Risk Management Plant (RMP) database from its public web site. That site contained a listing of all facilities that were required to file a RMP because of their possession of a threshold amount of certain highly hazardous chemicals (flammable, explosive and toxic chemicals most of which also made it to the CFATS Appendix A list of DHS chemicals of concern – COI). It was felt at the time that the RMP listings would provide overseas terrorist organizations with a ready list of potential targets.

Starting in July the EPA is planning to once again to make that database available on the internet. As before it would include basic registration data but would not include the Off-Site Consequence Analysis (OCA) data as that information (and its derived analysis and ranking data) was protected from public release in 1999 by §3 of the Chemical Safety Information, Site Security and Fuels Regulatory Relief Act (PL 106-40).

This data has been technically available to the public all along as it could be accessed in EPA Reading Rooms around the country. Additionally, a number of activist organizations have made the same data available on their web sites (see for example The same information was also required to be made available directly be facilities to the appropriate State Emergency Response Commission (SERC) and Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC). It is also available via Freedom of Information Act requests.

Public Debate

When the EPA removed the RMP database from their internet site, it was done with the minimum of public discussion. In many ways the removal was a kneejerk reaction to the 9-11 attacks and was derided as such by many environmental and process safety advocates. Director Stanton is apparently trying to ensure that the same will not be able to be said about the decision to re-make the information available on the internet. He is publicly inviting stakeholders on both sides of the issue to become involved in the discussion before the move is made. Unfortunately, the organizations within the Executive Branch that might be expected to oppose, or at least question the move (DHS and the FBI for example) have remained mute on the topic.

I am sure that a number of organizations and businesses have already responded in private expressing their support or opposition to EPA’s announced intention to re-post the information. Unfortunately, these private comments do little to further the public debate and raise the specter of various sorts of political and/or economic pressure being applied to the Administration on the issue.

I would like to suggest that open government would be better served by a public comment procedure like that used in the development of rules and regulations. Opening a docket on and accepting public comments from all sectors would provide a much clearer and open debate.

Having said that, I would like to add my very public musings about the topic to the discussion. Readers of this blog will note that I have been a strong advocate for community involvement in emergency response planning as an active part of the chemical security process for high-risk chemical facilities.

In Favor of the Posting

First let me start off by saying that J.Q. Public has an inherent need to know what highly hazardous chemicals are lurking in his neighborhood. By not knowing about the risks associated with those chemicals in his/her life he/she is at an increased risk of economic or physical injury, even death. Being able to make decisions on avoiding those hazards by moving away or taking personal protection steps depends on know what hazards are faced.

The current law {42 USC 7414(c)} and regulations {40 CFR 68.210(a)} requires that the RMP facility information be made available to the public. The current availability via the EPA Reading Rooms and FOIA requests mean that that requirement is technically fulfilled. Realistically, few people realize that the EPA Reading Rooms exist, much less know where one is. And the filing of FOIA requests is time consuming and tedious.

The provision of the information to LEPC’s is hardly more effective. With a few prominent exceptions LEPC’s are ineffective at best and a large number of covered facilities have no such organizations to report to.

Only with the information being available on the internet will the vast majority of people truly have ‘access’ to the information. Of course having access is not the same as using access or following through on the information provided, but it is an important improvement over the current situation.

In Opposition to the Posting

The reason that the EPA removed the list from the internet in the first place is that the database provided anyone with a desire to turn a chemical facility into a chemical weapon with the ability to effectively search for appropriate targets. While a local wannabe could find much of the information locally without much problem, they would not be able to gather the information necessary to optimize their target selection process. A truly effective national-level chemical facility attack would most by definition require access to such a database.

Additionally, since the RMP list of chemicals was adopted almost entirely into the DHS COI list it would make it easy to determine which facilities would have been required to submit Top Screen filings as a potential prelude to CFATS coverage. That combined with a cursory examination of the surrounding community would probably allow for a pretty accurate guess as to whether DHS had determined the facility to be at high-risk of terrorist attack. That information could easily be used to formulate an effective social-engineering cyber-attack on the facility.

Personal Opinion

Personally, I guess that I am going to grudgingly come down on the side of restoring the database. I would rather see Congress put some teeth into the current right-to-know laws and require FEMA and EPA to ensure active outreach to State and local government officials and surrounding neighbors as part of an effective emergency planning process. Since that isn’t going to happen I would rather see local curmudgeons have the information necessary to force local officials into that planning process.

Besides, I could always use the database information to do an advertising mailing to the listed facilities as a drive to get more readers for this blog.

No comments:

/* Use this with templates/template-twocol.html */